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(Reuters) - U.S. retailer Walmart Inc (WMT.N) is in early-stage talks with health insurer Humana Inc (HUM.N) about developing closer ties, with the acquisition of Humana being discussed as one possibility, people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

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Shopping carts are seen outside a new Wal-Mart Express store in Chicago July 26, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress/Files

Should the talks lead to a tieup, it would be the latest deal to bring together a retail chain and a health insurer, following CVS Health Corp’s (CVS.N) $69 billion deal to acquire Aetna Inc (AET.N) and Cigna Corp’s (CI.N) $54 billion deal to buy Express Scripts Holding Co (ESRX.O).

Walmart approached Humana earlier this month and the deliberations are preliminary, one of the sources said. While the conversations have focused on new partnerships, an acquisition of Humana by Walmart is also something being discussed, the source added.

The sources asked not to be identified because the deliberations are confidential. Humana and Walmart did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Walmart currently has a co-branded Medicare drug plan with Humana that steers patients to Walmart stores. The partnership offers a prescription drug plan that can save up to 20 percent in drug costs for customers.

Closer ties between the two companies could allow Walmart to tap into Humana’s patient population, expanding the low-level medical services in its pharmacies to avoid ER visits, and to better manage prescription drug use though access to medical records.

Humana’s biggest business is managing Medicare Advantage health plans, a heavily regulated business that Walmart would also have to take on in an acquisition.

Reporting by Carl O'Donnell and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Michele Gershberg in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler and Leslie Adler

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